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The Science Behind Lifting: To Bend or Not to Bend Your Low Back?


When it comes to lifting heavy objects, ensuring proper technique is crucial to prevent injuries. One common debate revolves around whether it is safe to bend your low back while lifting or if it's better to maintain a straight posture throughout the movement. In this blog, we will explore the latest evidence and provide guidance on the best practices for lifting safely.

Understanding the Anatomy:

Before diving into the evidence, it's important to understand the anatomy involved. The low back, or lumbar spine, consists of a series of vertebrae supported by discs, ligaments, and muscles. These structures work together to provide stability and allow movement. Improper lifting techniques can place excessive stress on these structures, potentially leading to strains, sprains, or even disc herniations.

The Bending vs. Straight Posture Debate:

Traditionally, it has been widely advised to maintain a straight back while lifting, with the knees doing most of the work. This technique is known as the "hip hinge," promoting the engagement of the powerful hip and leg muscles while minimizing stress on the low back.

It has long been believed that bending the low back while lifting can significantly increase pressure on the intervertebral discs. This was based on a variety of research such as that by Adams et al. (1987) who found that when the lumbar spine is flexed during lifting, the pressure on the discs can be several times higher than when maintaining a neutral spine position, and by McGill (1997) who demonstrated that repeated flexion and bending of the lumbar spine can weaken the disc structure, making it more susceptible to injury.

However, recent research suggests that a slight bending of the low back may not be as detrimental as previously believed. A study published in the Journal of Biomechanics found that a small degree of lumbar flexion during lifting can distribute the load more evenly across the spine, reducing the strain on any specific structure, and a review of a larger pool of current research found that lumbar flexion is not associated with or causes a greater risk of low back pain. It goes further by suggesting that advising people to avoid flexion during lifting is not helpful in preventing low back pain and will likely increase fear in doing so (Dr Sarah Haag of review of Saraceni. N, 2020).

Key Considerations for Safe Lifting:

While the evidence suggests that slight lumbar flexion may be acceptable, it's crucial to approach lifting with caution and prioritize safety. Here are some guidelines to follow:

1. Start with a Neutral Spine: Before lifting, aim to maintain a neutral spine position. This involves keeping your low back in its natural, slightly arched position.

2. Engage Your Core: Regardless of whether you choose to bend your low back slightly or not, ensuring a strong core is essential. Engage your deep abdominal muscles by gently pulling your belly button towards your spine.

3. Lift with Your Legs: Regardless of the technique used, it's imperative to engage your leg muscles when lifting. Bend your knees, keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and push through your legs to power the lift.

4. Keep the Load Close: To minimize strain on your back, keep the object you're lifting as close to your body as possible. This reduces the lever arm and decreases the load

5. Whatever position you choose, whether it be neutral or flexed, maintain this position throughout lifting the object. Lifting via motion of the spine may still be harmful to discs, ligaments, and muscles.

Our programs for low back pain are built around all of the above concepts, with a step-by-step approach which ensures you’re doing the right exercise at the right time. Your body can heal itself, and we can show you how.

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